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Wainwright to Channel Judy Garland, Live

A poster for Wainwright's concert mimics the one for Garland's.
A poster for Wainwright's concert mimics the one for Garland's.
A 40th-anniversary recording of Garland's Carnegie performance was released in 2001 by Capitol Records.
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A 40th-anniversary recording of Garland's Carnegie performance was released in 2001 by Capitol Records.

The concert poster for Judy Garland's 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall proclaimed her the "world's greatest entertainer." Rufus Wainwright is certainly less well-known than Garland, but he's retaining the set list and the superlative billing for his recreation of that legendary show.

At the time of the original Carnegie Hall concert, Garland was long past her days of superstardom, which began with 1939's The Wizard of Oz and waned in the '50s. Garland, who had not appeared in any films for over six years, had also battled substance abuse and hepatitis.

The concert, however, was a major success: Garland packed the hall. The show recording spent 13 weeks at No. 1 and won five Grammys. The album has never been out of print.

Though Wainwright, son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, has put out several albums of his own songs, he also has a penchant for unexpected covers. He's sung a rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and various interpretations of opera songs, always in his distinct, drowsy-sounding style.

But his plan to restage Garland's show in its entirety stands apart, not just for the length of the show (the CD has 27 tracks, some of them medleys) but because of Garland's iconic status. Garland died in 1969, five days before the Stonewall riots in New York, and is still revered in the gay community. "I don't think it would have been possible for anyone other than a gay male to do this concert," Wainwright says. "In a weird way, a gay man has some sort of perspective on it, I believe."

Wainwright performs the concert with a 40-piece orchestra to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall next week.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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